How Do You Know When It’s Love?

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A recent letter from one of my readers was a potent reminder of what I was like when I was in my teens.

It wasn’t pretty.

I was a classic otaku; I was going through the stage where the only things I wanted to talk about were anime, manga and the fact that I wanted to find The One in the worst way. To paraphrase the ever relevant 500 Days of Summer, I could blame this on an early exposure to sad British pop music and completely misunderstanding St. Elmo’s Fire1. And in fairness, my experiences at the time validated everything I was feeling. Love was everywhere. I didn’t just have a crush on a girl in high-school or college, I had a mad, all-consuming fire in my heart for her that meant I couldn’t eat or sleep.

Well… sleep, anyway. Eating somehow managed to take care of itself, actually.

Every time I was into a girl, I was in love with her with my entire heart and soul. When we broke up (and we always broke up… usually within a few months of getting together) it was a hideous tragedy that would break my heart into pieces, set them on fire and then piss in the ashes, just for good measure.

Maybe you’re shaking your head in familiar dismay. It’s something that everybody goes through… and the we all usually have the same realisation.

It took my first serious relationship to make me realize that I had absolutely no idea what love really was… and I needed a better handle on this whole “love” business if I didn’t want all of my relationships to end in tragedy.

Why Do We Keep Getting Confused?

Well… you can kinda blame the French for this one. The Western concept of romantic love comes from the concepts of courtly love and chivalry2, where knights had elaborate and – critically – platonic relationships with the ladies of the court to which they served. Marriage at the time, especially amongst royalty wasn’t about love but about property exchange, which meant that many noblewomen were in loveless marriages, often to husbands much older than they were. Bring someone in closer to their age as part of the court, often keeping in close proximity, and you’re going to end up with a lot of people with crushes and infatuations on one another that couldn’t be consummated because of a very strict sense of etiquette (and rather harsh punishments for adultery)… something that was actively encouraged in part by the culture at the time. Troubadours took the idea – lovers restrained by circumstance and law, unrequited love and the purity of love vs. the coarseness of sex – and ran with it. One of the most famous love stories in history – the story of Lancelot and Gueneviere – is based out of the Chivalric tradition and inserted into the legend of King Arthur by  Chrétien de Troyes in what would later become the basis of fanfic writers redefining the canon.

Give it another hundred years and this will be official.

The idea of “true love” being eternal, that love conquers all obstacles, that love is inherently monogamous, that lovers always think about the ones they love, that someone in love can’t eat or sleep for being “love-sick” over their crushes… all arise of the concept of courtly love, passed down through pop-culture for centuries.

The problem of course, is that this concept of “true love” tends to want to ignore things like biology and psychology and often doesn’t match up to reality.

So What’s The Problem?

When you’re young, you think you know everything there is to know about… well, everything. You’re the first generation to ever feel this way and nobody else can really understaaaaand, man.

It usually takes getting your heart stomped on a few times before you start to wise up and realize that you’ve been going about it all wrong.

On the left: your hopes and dreams. On the right: life.

The problem, y’see, is that while love may be all around us, it usually ends up hiding behind it’s various cousins that look an awful lot like love… and it’s incredibly easy to mistake them for the real thing. When your idea of what love is – and what to expect – is based on 80s New Wave albums and John Hughes movies, you end up with wildly unrealistic expectations, leading to a great deal of unhappiness for both you and your erstwhile romantic partner. It’s one thing to think that love is supposed to be a Bonnie Tyler video full of over-the-top choruses and heartfelt powerchords about how explosive and overwhelming love is, but it’s another entirely to try to base an entire relationship around it.

Also: Murderous psychic children.

Unfortunately, love is one of those things that you can’t describe directly. At best you can talk around it, about how it feels and how it affects us, even the physical effects like the generation of oxytocin… which is great for poetry and sappy top-40 ballads, but really bad for trying to sort out how you feel when you don’t have much of a basis for comparison. If you are trying to base a relationship on what you assume is love but is really one of it’s look-alike cousins, then you run the risk of needless heartbreak and disappointment when you realize that what you had was actually something much more fleeting.

Looks A Lot Like Love

Puppy Love

Puppy love is usually our first brush with romantic love, especially as tween or teenager. Most often it’s a school-boy or girl crush, frequently on someone out of one’s league whether it be a popular peer or an adult.  It’s that adoring rush of affection that leaves us dumbstruck and twitterpated… and in some cases3 leads us to basically follow the object of our affection around like a lost puppy looking for a belly rub. It’s most noted by the tendency to inspire the sufferer to spend their time daydreaming about their crush and indulging in elaborate (if usually fairly chaste) fantasies about a relationship with them. It’s an exciting rush of emotion that feels larger than life and is, in reality, about as shallow as a puddle… and usually lasts about as long as tears in the rain.

For all that it’s generally looked upon by people with a mix of bemused nostalgia and shame, puppy love (or first love) can actually be a powerful force and the after-effects can linger for a lifetime; almost everybody has fond memories of their first “love”.

Lust

Imagine how it felt the first time you saw someone you were really into. Your heart starts to race. Your palms sweat but your mouth goes dry. Your throat seems like it’s slammed shut, forcing you to swallow if you want to say anything beyond a low croak. You’re actually so nervous that you’re shaking. You find them almost undeniably desirable and you can’t stop yourself from wondering what they’re going to feel like when you’re holding them against you as you kiss madly in a dark corner somewhere.

Sounds an awful lot like love at first sight, no?

What you’re actually feeling are physical symptoms of arousal ((or fear…)). But if you’re going to go by generations of pop culture, this is what you’ve been told that love feels like. And if you’re relatively inexperienced sexually – and for a lot of people, even if you are fairly experienced – it’s easy to mistake sexual attraction for love… especially if you can’t necessarily do anything about that attraction. After all, it’s a quirk of the human psyche that we almost instinctively want what we can’t have; a libidinous “grass is always greener”, if you will. Wanting to bang out can make you blind to a lot of flaws and fundamental incompatibilities because sometimes your genitals can yell a lot louder than your brain.

Lust is an immediate physical reaction to someone, prompted by pheromones screaming “this person would make an excellent genetic partner for your offspring”, not a quasi-psychic recognition that the two of you are actually soul-mates. It’s about the propagation of your DNA, not necessarily hearts and flowers and cartoon birds. We have a lot of cultural hang-ups built into our concept of love, and one of them is that sexual desire and love are somehow one and the same.

They’re not; they just happen to occur at the same time often enough that we frequently conflate the two. This leads to any number of problems, especially with the concept of monogamy. Our cultural definition of “love” contains the inherent idea that love means you don’t want to have sex with other people. Unfortunately, our biology, which insists that we want to ensure the spread of our genetic line, tends to have very strong opinions of it’s own and doesn’t pay attention to things like emotional bonds. As a result, we end up with couples in crisis because they realize that one or the other or both are having pants-feelings for other people… oh noes, this means our love wasn’t true!

Another common issue is that lust makes for a poor basis for a long-term relationship. Lust and sexual attraction is all about immediacy; the need to reproduce as soon as possible as often as possible. It doesn’t concern itself over emotional compatibility or desirable traits in a life-long partner, just in someone who would make a good genetic match. When lust has been sated… well, sometimes you realize that you can’t actually stand the person you were just smashing genitals with, nevermind looking forward to a years-long commitment.

Infatuation

Infatuation, much like puppy-love, tends to carry the sufferer away in a tidal wave of passion and excitement. It feels like an all-encompassing euphoria, leaving the sufferer feeling as though his head is stuffed with cotton candy and pure MDMA. He or she frequently seems to have lost several critical IQ points as they seemingly obsess about the object of their affection, from the way he runs his fingers through his hair to the way she adorable way she chews her food. Infatuation makes people reckless, seemingly willing to make unusual, even stupid decisions in the name of their newfound “love”. Their feelings are almost like an chemical high, causing them to feel like they’re on top of the world and they can do anything because hey, they’re in love man, and like, nobody’s ever felt like this before.

It’s an undeniable rush, one that makes you understand just what all those French poets and depressed Britpop singers were going on about. It feels as though that the entire universe is smiling on you personally.

Yeah, it’s kinda like that.

Unfortunately, the stratospheric highs tend to come with corresponding meteoric plunges into cthonian lows. Infatuation tends to burn like a grassfire, wild, out of control and over in a flash, leaving behind the charred ruins and the consequences of all the incredibly stupid shit you did when you were in the middle of it. As amazing as you felt with that initial rush, when infatuation burns itself out – and it always does – you can be left completely devasatated, feeling as though everything you had was a lie and that your life as you know it is effectively over.

“Love’s a hell of a drug.”

Much like lust, infatuation often coincides and overlaps with love; in fact, a lot of infatuation is what is frequently called “new relationship energy” or “the honeymoon period” when everything is beautiful and amazing and your lover can do absolutely no wrong. Infatuation is passion mixed with sexual desire, brought on by hormones and oxytocin generation, helping to build a sense of trust and emotional bonding with one’s partner. The problem, however, is that passion inevitably fades, no matter how strong it is at the start. In fact, the half-life of infatuation and passion is somewhere between six months to a year on average, after which that sense of intense, immediate connection starts to fade.

Many couples assume that this is a sign that something’s wrong, that the ebbing passion and lack of rush from sheer physical contact with their partner means that their love is fading or worse, over. This is the cause of a great deal of unnecessary panic and turmoil for couples who don’t realize that infatuation is only the starting point of a relationship… and if they’re not careful, it can be it’s end point as well.

In fact, passion’s wane is a natural and necessary part of deepening a relationship’s emotional bonds… turning from infatuation into a deeper, more intimate emotion that we know as love.

What Is Love?4

The problem with mistaking lust or infatuation for love is that it’s like mistaking the ignition for the car; it makes a lot of noise and catches your attention, but it’s only a part of the whole. Love is a much more gradual emotion than we’re taught to believe. That initial “love at first sight” or “falling head over heels” is a mix of lust and infatuation that helps bring people together. Love itself is a deepening of the emotional bond that may be started by sexual desire or an initial attraction; romantic love is more akin to an incredibly deep friendship than a constant state of cardiac arrhythmia and limbic overdrive. It’s a feeling of emotional intimacy, rather than necessarily a physical attraction, a desire for partnership and unity rather than just the need for sexual release.

Love is actually much calmer than we’re lead to believe; even when the passion fades and the lust ebbs, love leaves a contentment and compassion for one’s partner. Love isn’t about crazy emotional rushes and blind cherubs with missile weapons, it’s about forging a long-term partnership with someone who you want by your side and at your back, offering compassion and support. Love is about finding a life-long partner in crime.

This isn’t to say that love is blind or somehow makes someone oblivious to his or her partner’s flaws, or that love is enough to overcome all obstacles. Quite the opposite, actually; more often than not, couples who are well and truly in love but are fundimentally incompatible frequently find that love simply isn’t enough to make things work, no matter how much they wish it was.

However, love is the motivating force that makes them want to fight for their relationship and fix it rather than just let it fall apart.

How do you know when it’s love?5

It’s when you realize that no matter how annoyed or outright pissed you get at someone, that they’re the one you want to spend all your time with. When you realize that they’re someone you want guarding your back, helping you pick your ass up off the floor  and sitting in the rocker next to you when the two of you are old and decrepid and wearing adult diapers… and you still think they’re the coolest motherfucker you know.

It’s when, even when the passion is spent and the “new car smell” of the relationship has long faded that you can look over at them and realize.

Yup.

They’re the one.

  1. and a whole host of other romantic comedies []
  2. from chevalier – French knights. Told you: blame the French. []
  3. i.e. me []
  4. Don’t hurt me… []
  5. Well it’s something you feel together… screw you haters, Sammy Hagar-era Van Halen is the best []

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